An AIDS victim reflects on life in his final year

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This will be Joey's last Christmas. There will be time for a midnight mass over some radio station tonight, and final pleas for mercy to a God somewhere in heaven, but then Joey will turn out the lamp in his room and wait for the end to arrive.

It's only a matter of months now. In this season of hope, there will be no last-minute reprieves from any celestial high court, because there will be no pause in the breakdown of his immune system.

The doctors have pronounced their diagnosis of AIDS. All of the workouts and all of the health foods and all of the AZT helped wage a five-year stalling game, and all of the psychological denial shut out the future for a while, but now the disease is ruining Joey at a terrible pace. Nature is a bully once it gets the upper hand.

''Who do I blame?'' he asks.

It's not an easy question for this season. Tonight is set aside for a rebirth of innocence, of belief in a divine system of kindness and not retribution. Instead, Joey lies under the covers of his bed and tries to weave some final meaning into the 42 years of his life.

''What I can't get away from,'' he says, ''is that I'm punished for being bad. Not that I did anything bad, but that being gay is bad. Like I had some control over it, you know? And we've been told our entire lives that it was so bad that we were going to pay for it. And now, right on schedule, here's the punishment.''

He was a straight-arrow kid growing up in Hamilton: schoolyard athlete, decent student with artistic instincts, went to work for an advertising outfit after community college. He comes from a generation where the high school kids, bolstering their own sexual insecurities, made mincing gestures, little flips of the wrist and lisping noises, when talking of homosexuals. It separated them from those out of step; it was a circling of the wagons against the dangers of feeling different.

Joey joined in the patter without quite sensing its implications. There was a feel-good tribalism about it, and not the retrospective sense of self-mockery he feels now, the awful notion that he was having a hoot at his own future demise.

Five years out of high school he married, because it seemed the right thing to do. Two years later he unmarried, because it seemed the only thing to do. In a time when a generation of gay men and women were not only coming out of the closet but declaring themselves unashamed, Joey felt a weight coming off of his chest.

''I thought marriage would make me like everybody else,'' he says now, running a hand through the wispy remains of his hair. ''All it did was reinforce my sense of being in the wrong place.''

He paired off with more men than he wishes to remember. Sex was part of it, but mostly it was this flood of overdue validation: he could be loved on his own terms, and not those imposed by the invisible hand of society.

Only, somewhere along the way, maybe one of those nights when the partners were known only by first names and the act seemed without ultimate payback, he became infected.

''Routine physical,'' he says. ''Took the test, it was positive. Doctor says I've got HIV. And you go through this long sense of denial. You say, 'Hey, I don't have any symptoms. I'll beat this thing. Or at least I'll hang on until they find a cure.''

Ultimately, it's the way we all look at death from a distance: We'll hang on until they find a cure for whatever disease may await us. A way will be found, a loophole in the laws of nature, a wink from some giver and taker of lives.

''Then one day,'' Joey says, ''the doctor says, 'OK, we're putting you on AZT.' And that's a big jolt, because I know lots of people who went through AZT, and they're all dead or dying now.''

He's lived with one man for the past seven years, sharing a refurbished town house. The relationship, he says, is like a marriage but with one major exception: health benefits. The law says they can't be married, and the overwhelming percentage of health plans say that only married people can benefit from each other's health plans.

''The last several years, before I stopped working, I wanted to change jobs or just quit,'' he says. ''But I couldn't, because of the medical benefits. I needed the company. If I changed jobs, I didn't know if I could get benefits, because I'd already been diagnosed. And I couldn't get [his partner's] benefits, because the law says we aren't married, even though we feel we are.''

But those are battles already fought and long since lost. What's left is to make the most of time, and to come to terms with his life. This sense of punishment hangs in the air, the notion of AIDS as a thunderbolt from a disapproving God.

''What's terrible,'' Joey says now, ''is this sense of isolation. You feel like people don't want to be near you, because they're afraid of you. But you keep asking, 'Has God abandoned me, too? Am I dying because of something I did?' ''

There's a little artificial Christmas tree on a table in a corner of the room, with a couple of presents beneath it. Joey gazes at it for a moment, tightens his jaw, opens his mouth to talk.

''I've never stopped having faith in God,'' he says in a voice grown hoarse. ''But I need to believe that God still looks at me kindly, and that I'm not dying out of some sense of punishment for a crime I didn't commit.''

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